Giving government IT projects stick is a national pastime in the UK, often not without good justification. And when UK government portal Directgov was launched in 2004, the website – designed to provide citizens with a single access point for government information – proved no exception.
At the time, it was argued that a quick Google search could provide the same results in less time. But five years down the road, Directgov is proving that it is much more than just a directory of public sector websites.
For one thing, as Directgov’s chief technology officer David Matthewman outlines, the very act of converging departmental websites onto a single platform is introducing clarity and simplicity to what was once an opaque and diverse jumble of content.
“Editorially, we make sure everything is as accessible as possible, and that it is in a common-sense, straightforward style,” he explains. “There are many examples where we’ve concertinaed content from a number of pages down to one.”
And by structuring the information in a way that reflects the interests of citizens, rather than the anatomy of government, the site can present relevant information from across the public sector based on the visitor’s needs.
“People generally come to the site with one interest in mind, such as parenting or motoring,” says Matthewman. “So alongside the content they are looking at, we can present links to other relevant information, whether it’s from the Home Office, HMRC or wherever.”
But where Directgov is really beginning to move beyond a mere content aggregator is in ‘surfacing’ transactions and processes supported by the back-office systems of the individual departments, such as HMRC’s tax self-assessment process. This is creating a one-stop shop not only for information, but also for participation.
Again, that puts Directgov in a position to set the standards for the government’s digital services. “We make sure the transactions are fit for purpose, and over time we will be introducing commonality to all those processes,” says Matthewman. “We have a quality framework that specifies how a transaction should be arranged and worded, and there have been transactions that we have sent back for improvement.”
“My personal belief is that Directgov has a role as a catalyst for rationalising government processes,” he adds. “Beyond making sure that everything works, I think our role is to be the expert on digital engagement and content for the citizen, and helping to push that agenda across government. From our position, we will be able to get great insight into what the citizen wants to do, and how well the government is helping them do it.”
But instead of becoming a monolithic data and process store, he says, the idea behind Directgov is very much to preserve and encourage a federated model of labour division between the departments and local authorities.
One example of that model in action is a system, currently under development, to fulfil Directgov’s obligation to collate all the public sector job vacancies from across the country. “We are using the resource description framework (RDF) standard to allow the local authorities to describe the vacancies on their own systems, and we will aggregate all the jobs together on the site,” says Matthewman.
“That’s a great example of what would a couple of years ago have been a substantial database build, but that has become a devolved task,” he says.
Given the possibilities of opening up government data to the public, the scope for Directgov is wide. However, while the above example and others, such as making student loan information available through Facebook (now under consideration) show that Directgov is engaging with contemporary developments, much of its work is hardly on the cutting edge. But nor does it necessarily want to be.
“Our overriding aim is to make the information citizens want available where they want it to be,” he explains. “Seven million people are still using Teletext so we still have a Teletext page.”
Nevertheless, says Matthewman, Directgov’s directors are committed to using the benefits of information technology in order to create greater citizen engagement with government, and greater value for money for taxpayers.
“I genuinely think Directgov has a great opportunity to make a real difference,” he says. “For an IT director, that’s a privileged position to be in.”